Veterans hospital increasing services for returning soldiers

12/06/05 12:00AM By Steve Zind
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(Host) As a large contingent of Vermont soldiers prepares to return home next week, officials at the Veterans Hospital are beefing up services.

Today officials at the White River Junction hospital said that the incidence of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and other combat related problems is higher for the Iraq war than it was for the war in Vietnam.

VPR's Steve Zind reports:

(Zind) Doctor Andrew Pomerantz is Chief of Mental Health and Behavioral Sciences at the Veterans Hospital in White River Junction.

Pomerantz says all of the soldiers who'll be returning to Vermont next week will face some problems readjusting.

(Pomerantz) "These people coming home are not going to be exactly like they were before. Things have changed, and very routine tasks are perceived quite differently."

(Zind) Pomerantz says some soldiers will experience minor difficulties, while others will have a harder time. As an example, Pomerantz says one returning Vermont soldier he's treated froze in terror when he was driving near his home and saw a child playing by the road.

(Pomerantz) "Many of our soldiers are driving trucks in convoys and someone in the road is an enemy. So someone driving down the road in Barre, Vermont or wherever suddenly comes to a complete stop and cannot drive any further."

(Zind) There are indications that up to thirty percent of soldiers returning from Iraq have serious difficulties readjusting.

Pomerantz says the high numbers may be the result of the kind of combat situation soldiers in Iraq face, where there is no front line, and possibly the fact that many serving in Iraq are part time soldiers, members of the Guard and Reserve.

(Pomerantz) "We have seen a steady trickle of people coming in for treatment. About half are with depression or substance use disorders. We're seeing increasing numbers of people generally brought in by their families or brought in by their primary care providers."

(Zind) Recognizing that problems often go untreated until they reach a crisis point, Pomerantz says the VA Hospital has been increasing staff around the state and doing outreach to teach soldiers' families, schools and social service agencies about recognizing PTSD and other combat related problems.

All returning soldiers are screened for signs of trouble.

Vermont VA officials say they've received a million dollars in additional funds in the past two years to work with the Vermont National Guard to help returning soldiers.

But Vermont Congressman Bernie Sanders says he's concerned not enough resources are being devoted nationally to helping veterans.

Sanders is cosponsoring legislation to increase the Veterans Administration budget and improve services.

(Sanders) "Promises were made to veterans. Promises have got to be kept. And it is no secret that that is not the case, in my view, right now. And I share with the major veteran's organizations the need to see a substantial increase in VA funding."

(Zind) More than six hundred members of the Vermont guard will return home next week. A team from the VA hospital in White River will meet them this week when they arrive at Camp Shelby, Mississippi.

Most of the returning soldiers were based in Kuwait, not in Iraq. Officials say they don't know to what degree the group will be affected by combat related stress. Several hundred members of the Vermont National Guard are now serving in Iraq.

For Vermont Public Radio, I'm Steve Zind in White River Junction.
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